Beating around the Bush

With Texas Gov. George W. Bush shifting into active campaign mode, the Republican presidential race is evolving fast.

Governor Bush increasingly dominates the polls. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC survey shows him leading Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic front-runner, 51 to 36 percent. In the GOP race, Bush's closest rival, former Cabinet official Elizabeth Dole, garners only 11 percent against his 61 percent.

Those polls are a snapshot of June 1999, not of November 2000, or even next February. With much of the public paying little attention at this point, they don't mean a lot. But they do affect perceptions among politicians and fund-raisers, who want to jump on the bandwagon of the candidate they think will win. Bush's early lead is making it tough for other GOP candidates to raise money and garner support.

One theory of Republican presidential politics is that the nomination race boils down to two primaries: a primary of the party's mainstream and a "primary of the right" among conservatives. The two candidates who emerge then slug it out. This goes back to 1912 and the party-splitting William Taft-Theodore Roosevelt race. In latter days, it dates from the 1952 Robert Taft-Dwight Eisenhower contest.

But Bush's early success has seriously hampered the right-wing as well as his mainstream rivals. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and commentator Pat Buchanan complain about coronations and inherited nominations. Still, one of the candidates to the right of Bush is likeliest to emerge as the alternative.

So it was surprising to hear Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah announce last week that he plans to run. He's painting himself as a pragmatic conservative who can work with Democrats. But conventional wisdom says it's too late to raise money in the overcrowded field. Senator Hatch says he's positioning himself to step in if Bush stumbles. If that happens, he'll have plenty of company.

Bush is an attractive candidate. But the others deserve a closer look.

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